Beta: The first cyberfeminist bot
Back in 1985, feminist academic Donna Haraway coined the term “cyberactivism,” defining it as a tool that could be used to even the playing field between men and women and end the patriarchy. Ever since, the development of new technologies like the Internet and social media has led to many cases in which the neutrality available online has helped create new opportunities to elevate historically marginalized individuals and to reach more people with an educating message about oppression and equality. Now, Brazilians will have the chance to vocally — or better yet, cybernetically — call out and fight restrictions to women’s rights through Beta, the first-ever cyberfeminist robot.
Beta was launched in August of 2017 by a Brazilian NGO called Nossas. Nossas began participating in cyberactivism back in 2011, when the group created a campaign called “Meu Rio.” In light of Rio’s political crisis at the time — the people didn’t feel represented by the politicians in the ballots — “Meu Rio” created a network of Rio de Janeiro citizens, so that they could organize their fights for a better use of public money by receiving and forwarding complaints through technology. Nossas has since developed projects for women’s rights, such as “Mapa do Acolhimento,” a platform that connects victims of rape with therapists and lawyers, and “Defezap,” a safe system to report violence committed by public service agents to people in the Rio de Janeiro state.
When Facebook launched the ability for users to employ bots in Messenger, Nossas saw a new opportunity to engage more people in cyberfeminism. While these Messenger bots were initially used solely for e-commerce and media source pages on the platform, Beta serves a more activist purpose. When a Facebook user initiates a conversation with Beta, they can choose to be updated by “her” any time there is a threat to women’s rights in the country. If they opt in, the robot will notify its followers about any new details regarding relevant legal bills in simple language. The robot can also send emails pre-written by Nossas on behalf of Facebook users to politicians that are likely to vote against women’s rights; all the user has to do is provide their full name and email address and click on the “Take Action” button. Through those emails, Beta fills the inboxes of these politicians and puts pressure on them to publicly position themselves in favor of women’s rights. This tactic both transmits to politicians the sense that the population is paying attention to their votes, and could ideally potentially contribute to their deciding to cancel, postpone, or even differently cast their vote.
Beta also has a corresponding website which serves an additional educational purpose. Beta highlights women who pioneered in computer programming, showcasing women such as Ada Lovelace, the first person to ever write an algorithm that was processed by a machine; Katherine Johnson, the American physicist who worked at NASA, doing the calculations that got a man on the moon; and Clarisse de Souza, an academic who studies the integration between humans and computers.
To understand Beta’s power, take, for example, the recent ruling on a 2015 bill that would have made abortions already authorized in Brazil — those necessitated by cases of rape, fetus anencephaly, and/or serious threats to the woman’s life — illegal. Through Beta, over 35,000 emails were sent to each of the congressmen involved in voting on the bill, which was postponed seven times before most recently being suspended with no set return date.
“Social media, and especially Facebook, has had a very important role in the growth of the feminist movement in the past years,” Ana Clara Toledo, a Nossas communications team member, told the FBomb. “That is why we knew that it would be an important space to encourage women to take political action for women’s rights.”
But there are pros and cons to the bot format, Toledo added, noting that the biggest advantage is having “a direct and practical channel to the public. It makes it simple to inform and mobilize the people.” The downside, though, is that “we still use the platform of a company, which means we are subjected to their orientations. If Facebook ends or starts to charge for chatbots, we will need to find another channel for Beta.”
Essentially, Toledo concluded, “We made a bet on the potential of the social media channel for mobilization and political engagement.”
It seems the bet has paid off: Over 90,000 Facebook users have interacted with the robot since its launch, and 45,000 have already taken action at least once, according to Toledo. And there may still be more to come from Beta.
“Beta is in constant technological development,” Toledo said. “Today, we consider it a 2.0 version, and we keep on bringing innovations to the project. At the time, we are waiting for the Brazilian elections, which will take place in October and November, to understand the new political scenario and work in response to it.”